DIGITAL CAMERA CURIOUSITIES
TODAY’S CAMERA DESIGNERS LOOK LIKE A FAIRLY CONSERVATIVE BUNCH COMPARED TO THOSE TRAIL-BLAZING THE FIRST FORAYS INTO DIGITAL CAPTURE DEVICES, WHEN THE NEW FREEDOMS IN BODY CONFIGURATION WERE EXPLOITED TO THE FULL. THE WEIRD AND WONDERFUL FROM THE YEARS
A post-film era offered freedom from film rolls, cassettes and cartridges, prompting a quirky set of early digital designs.
It’s just a little ironic that today’s most popular digital cameras are those which reprise classic designs from the film era… reflex or rangefinder, complete with traditional dials, eyelevel viewfinders and even picture modes which replicate the look of popular emulsions. It wasn’t always this way. In the early days of digital camera design, imaginations ran wild as the shackles of accommodating film were loosed and, as long as the lens’s optical axis stayed centred on the imaging sensor, just about body configuration was feasible. Consequently, there were numerous adventurous, innovative and downright quirky variations on the theme of the digital compact camera, some more successful than others.
While the very first truly accessible and affordable digital compacts – Kodak’s DC20 and DC25 (both launched in 1996) – were fairly conventional designs, after these everybody went troppo. For the next few years, the camera world was turned upside down with a dazzling array of weird and wonderful creations.
These were exciting times and, for a while there, just about everybody who made either still or video cameras was having a go. Of course, the market was never that big. It was consumer electronics companies such as JVC, Hitachi and Sanyo – who were essentially just ‘testing the water’ – that bailed out first, but the ongoing investment needed to stay competitive soon started to claim a growing list of photographic brands too. Some were early casualties, but eventually the rollcall included Agfa, Contax, Chinon, Konica, Minolta, Polaroid, Rollei, Yashica and the biggest scalp of them all, Kodak. It’s a topic for a different article, but it’s worth noting here that the demise of the original Kodak had much more to do with poor management than the company’s expertise in digital imaging which was, for quite a while, on a par with that of any of the Japanese camera makers… if not superior.
Theory… And Reality
It was inevitable, however, that the early enthusiasm for digital capture would be tempered by the growing realisation that the new conveniences – attractive though they undoubtedly were – still wouldn’t deliver as big a growth in the still camera market as had been initially envisaged.
Yes, digital capture certainly made photography more accessible, and eliminated many of the perceived drawbacks – such as waiting for film to be processed – but as clever as many of the earlier camera designs undoubtedly were, there were still issues for the average consumer with complexity, cost and – in those pre-WiFi days – actually being able to do much with the image files that didn’t involve using other hardware. The additional investment and expertise needed here meant that digital cameras were still more of a specialist product and, in fact, many casual snappers who had been using cheap point-and-shoot 35mm film compacts were left with no direct alternatives for quite some time. By the time the market settled down and lower cost digital compacts became available, the camera-equipped smartphone arrived to turn everything on its head again.
The return to more traditional styling and design for digital cameras, especially the interchangeable lens modes, is indicative of a number of things. For starters, like the steering wheel, the simple dial is hard to beat for efficiency and efficacy, while the eye-level viewfinder is not just about easier framing, but also a connection with both the camera and the subject.
There’s nearly 100 years of evolution between the early plate cameras and the revolutionary Contax S 35mm SLR from 1949 or Leica’s ground-breaking M3 35mm rangefinder model of 1954, both of which achieved a balance of workability, comfort and overall effectiveness that’s seen these basic designs endure into the digital era. It could be argued these configurations really can’t be bettered. Secondly, with the smartphone now having so completely replaced the point-andshoot camera, the market is again concentrating on the demands of higher-end users, who are traditionally… er, traditionalists.
So it’s back to more familiar themes in camera design. But for a few dramatic years from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, there was seemingly no limit to what might be possible. We will never see a time like it again.